Opinion: How to Dodge a Bullet With a Busted Neck

By Jordan Breen May 19, 2016


Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

Chris Weidman is an outstanding fighter with a serious history of injuries, so it may seem thoughtless to suggest that his latest training trauma is any way beneficial. So, naturally, that’s exactly what I’m going to suggest.

Admittedly, the injury that forced Weidman to pull out of his UFC 199 main event against Luke Rockhold is severe. A hernia in your neck that leaves you with hardcore vertigo, results in constant pain and screws up the nerves in one of your arms is no joke. Weidman carried the injury through training while popping painkillers and receiving epidurals until it became clear that surgery was absolutely necessary, nixing the Rockhold rematch.

Weidman turns 32 in less than a month and the former Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight titleholder has now pulled out of four scheduled fights in the last two years due to a variety of injuries, from broken hands, busted knees that required double surgery and, now, a nasty cervical-nerve issue. On top of that, it hasn’t even been six months since Rockhold absolutely pulverized him for the title. If he carried this injury into the fight, it probably would’ve turned into a disaster; pulling out was mandatory for the health of his career, and it’s borderline lunacy that Weidman wanted to try to push through. If we’re going to run back Rockhold-Weidman, they both need to be healthy. (Morbid note: Don’t look now, but there are still two weeks for Rockhold to get hurt.)

Here’s the truth: No one other than the UFC and Weidman wanted to run this back immediately. Immediate rematches are always a hot topic, and as a concept, they tend to produce passionate, polarized opinions. In this case, I was surprised how unanimously unimpressed the MMA community was when the rematch was announced. After it was official, any discussion I saw or heard of UFC middleweight title contention was either “When is Yoel Romero back?” “‘Jacare’ got ripped off against Romero, so why isn’t he the one getting the Rockhold rematch?” or “Michael Bisping beat Anderson Silva, so it should be him.” Most people, myself included, basically wanted anything other than an immediate rematch.

There are certain criteria that seem to govern how MMA folks feel about a potential immediate rematch. These include but are not limited to the following: Was their prior fight entertaining? Was it competitive? Was it close? Was it controversial in some way? Was it an upset? Was the outcome fluky? Is there an especially deserved challenger on deck who will be frozen out if there’s an immediate rematch? Was it a title fight, and if so, was a champion dethroned? If yes, was his or her reign lengthy or legendary? Is a rematch considerably more lucrative than other available options? Does the fight involve Frankie Edgar? This is why everyone rolled their eyes when Fabricio Werdum suggested he should get an immediate rematch against Stipe Miocic after he got completely embarrassed and face-planted at UFC 198.

Take the welterweight title picture, for instance. Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit did the damn thing and had the “Fight of the Year” two days into January, but you had a wide array of opinions about what should happen next. Tons of people scored the fight for Condit and thought he got hosed, necessitating a do-over. Some people wanted a redo of Lawler-Rory MacDonald. Some sadists, like the UFC apparently, preferred Tyron Woodley. The alchemy isn’t always the same in all these situations, and in a case like this, a plurality of justifiable contenders and the desire to see fresh matchups created a more diverse and passionate array of opinions despite Lawler-Condit being so violent, so delightful and so close.

Rockhold-Weidman 2 doesn’t tick enough of the boxes, not right now anyway. When Weidman took the title off of Silva in July 2013, it made sense to run it back in December. Silva was arguably the greatest fighter ever, had a record 10 title defenses, was 16-0 in the UFC and was a bigger draw than anyone Weidman could fight. A juiced-up Vitor Belfort was the only other viable potential contender at that point, and, of course, Silva, a legendary striker, got obliterated by a punch while clowning around like a dummy. It’s probably the most no-brainer immediate rematch ever.

In this case, though, there was a stream of interesting contenders; and it’s not like Rockhold was going to do infinitely bigger business meeting Weidman than facing Bisping, “Jacare” or Romero. While Weidman did win the first round of their first bout, he got beaten up for the next 13 minutes and was positively mauled for the last eight. The only controversy was the question of whether referee Herb Dean should have stopped it sooner. It doesn’t stack up well on the immediate rematch potential scale.

There’s another question to consider when sussing out whether an immediate rematch “makes sense,” and it’s especially pertinent to Weidman. If the previously defeated fighter loses in the rematch, does it undermine his or her future competitive or financial potential? In Weidman’s case, it’s a resounding yes and the deciding factor in why I thought the rematch sucked.

As I said earlier, Weidman is about to turn 32, which is not spring-chicken age but nowhere near old, regardless of his injury history. There’s plenty of fight left in him. However, if he trotted out in two weeks, healthy or not, and lost to Rockhold, where does he go from there? Losing to one guy, especially a champion, multiple times isn’t necessarily a promotional kiss of death, as Urijah Faber endlessly reminds us. However, if Rockhold beat him again and had a successful reign -- the likely outcome in that case, as he’s a decent favorite over Romero, already beat “Jacare” as a less evolved version of himself and destroyed Bisping when they met less than two years ago -- Weidman will be in competitive hell, just waiting for Rockhold to hopefully lose in a division in which he’ll be favored in every fight for the foreseeable future.

Using Faber as an example again, he racked up title rematches at 145 pounds when it was markedly thinner as a weight class and is now doing the same at 135 pounds, a division way beyond desperate for title challengers. In Weidman’s case, 185 pounds has never been better as a division; Silva certainly never had periods in his title reign where there were three or four legitimate and interesting potential challengers. That new middleweight depth and talent means that Weidman would not only be in a crowded scenario trying to get a third Rockhold fight, but also that the fights he’d be taking to earn it would be much more threatening than, say, Faber facing Iuri Alcantara or Alex Caceres. Plus, as I said, middleweight is excellent now, and from the UFC’s perspective, it would be running the risk of knocking off its own up-and-coming contenders if Weidman is fighting in the general 185-pound population.

Even if Weidman lost to Rockhold and ran roughshod over the rest of the division, there are no guarantees. Look at Joseph Benavidez. He is clearly the second-best flyweight in the world by a great margin and the division is especially shallow, yet he has spent two and a half years chasing a third fight with Demetrious Johnson; and he’s going to be chasing it for a while longer. It has gotten beyond painful, since he’s about to coach opposite Henry Cejudo on “The Ultimate Fighter” to set up a fight in December, and the entire premise of the season is taking 16 unsigned flyweights in a weak weight class to find Johnson’s next challenger. Even if he beats Cejudo, Benavidez needs to pray no other viable contenders emerge over the next year and that “Mighty Mouse” doesn’t do the overwhelming logical thing and move to 135 pounds to rematch Dominick Cruz in the best little fight money can buy. If everything works out perfectly for Benavidez, by the time a third bout with Johnson was scheduled, even on a favorable timeline, he will have spent nearly three and a half years chasing that fight.

If Weidman was stunted by a second Rockhold loss, he could move up to 205 pounds and be just fine physically and competitively, but as weak as the light heavyweight division is on the whole, its very best fighters are still exceptional. Rockhold is outstanding, but Weidman’s odds are better against him than Jon Jones or Daniel Cormier. I want to see Weidman against elite 205-pounders, but I don’t want it to be on account of being forced into the division because he was in limbo after losing to Rockhold twice.

Context and timing mean absolutely everything here. Obviously, I want to see Rockhold and Weidman fight one another again at a future juncture. I’m a believer in both fighters in the most literal way: Until they fought one another in December, I never picked either man to lose any of his fights, nor had I ever taken a flyer on any of their opponents because the betting odds were good. By mid-2011, I was absolutely convinced one of them would be the fighter to dethrone Silva and had begun fantasizing about them fighting each other. For posterity, here’s a tweet from the night Weidman savaged Mark Munoz, two days before Rockhold defended his Strikeforce title against Tim Kennedy:

I will always be excited to watch Rockhold and Weidman fight one another. I don’t just want a rematch; I want a trilogy. I want a trilogy in hopes that the third fight is inconclusive and we need to have Rockhold-Weidman 4. They are superb, well-rounded, offensively potent fighters that make great stylistic bedfellows. I want nothing but greatness for them both and I’d prefer it if they authored that greatness against one another in the cage, but the concept of their rematch for UFC 199 was a poor choice from the outset.

I’m sympathetic to the fact that defeated champions want instant rematches both for pride and, more importantly, for money. Title fights are still largely what the UFC uses to sell its product. Being a part of big events can earn you a percentage of pay-per-view revenue, and most UFC contracts stipulate making more money for championship bouts. However, if money is the operative concern, it’s questionable thinking to rush the Rockhold rematch, since a Weidman loss is going to preclude any more title fights in the near future unless Rockhold loses. For the UFC, a Weidman loss two weeks from now would also make it harder for the promotion to make money off of him, damaging a viable asset.

I hate that it took another Weidman injury, a serious one at that, to put the brakes on a bad idea. With that said, if Weidman can fully recover and soldier on, he, the UFC and the middleweight division will be better for it. Weidman may have injured his neck, but in doing so, he also may have dodged a bullet.

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